I recently outed myself as a Philistine, by rating one of the 100 all-time best novels 2 out of 5 (“it was okay”) on Goodreads. First published in 1915, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford had sat unloved on my bookshelf for several years when it was chosen for my book group. When the time came to read it, I realised why I’d given up on it the first time round. It’s the story of the relationship between two wealthy couples, and the sexual intrigues and emotional betrayals behind their respectable facades. The novel is considered a master class in the unreliable narrator that has inspired many distinguished 20th-century writers. So why didn’t it work for me?
As I’ve been out and about talking about my novel, I’ve been surprised to meet – in stark contrast to the predominant aversion to spoilers – a couple of people who like to look at the ending, perhaps the last couple of paragraphs, before turning to the first page. Now, I like the ending of Sugar and Snails, although it’s been suggested that some might find the issues insufficiently resolved. (I do get asked if I’m planning to write a sequel!) Because it tells of a destination rather than the journey, I don’t think reading it in advance would constitute a spoiler (although, prattling on at one talk about how I was pleased with the ending, I did have a friend tell me afterwards she thought my ending wrapped things up too much).
As someone who’s drawn to subtle stories with complex characters and hates being bludgeoned with being told what to think and feel, I shouldn’t be surprised that there are times when my expectations aren’t met by the book in my hands and I’m tempted to give up. Usually I try to unravel why it didn’t work for me, with the aim of both getting a stronger sense of what I like and don’t like, and what I can learn from this for my own writing. But sometimes I feel quite disorientated by my bafflement, by my lack of connection with the author’s words. If I’ve been unlucky – or chosen unwisely – and experienced a string of disconnections, I can feel quite low. The activity that has always been my refuge becomes a claustrum. It’s like being internally homeless or losing a good friend. (Or finding your compatriots have voted overwhelmingly for xenophobia, which still has me reeling almost a week on.)
I must confess I’m rather suspicious of the word brave. On the one hand, the term is overused, especially when referring to endurance in the face of tragedy. (Is it brave not to succumb when your life is threatened or is the human drive for survival? Do we call people brave to avoid having to empathise fully with the enormity of their trauma or to deny their despair?) On the other hand, I think bravery, even when applied to cases in which the person has a genuine choice whether to act, is overrated. Sure, if I were drowning I’d be grateful to anyone who dived in and rescued me, but if a stranger were in the same situation I’d rather my loved ones didn’t risk their own lives to save them. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up these two novels with the b-word in the title. Read on to see whether the characters’ bravery convinced me. (Incidentally, I wasn’t aware when I decided to pair them based solely on the titles that both are partly influenced by the author’s grandfather’s experience in the Second World War, and both featuring the ordeal of hunger.)
As I’ve mentioned before, I was surprised when a literary agent who turned down my debut novel did so because the sample I’d sent her was written in the first person present tense. But if you read for a living, being familiar with your preferences and prejudices can save a lot of time. After all, we can’t all appreciate the same thing. Reading for reviews is helping me clarify my own likes and dislikes although, despite the title of this post, a sense of accountability to publishers who’ve provided me a free copy and a belief in the value of diversity will see me rarely abandoning a book. (I think I ditched three out of well over 100 books I read last year.) But since “11 reasons I don’t want to read your book” has a nasty ring to it, for the purposes of this post I’m extending the definition of “abandon” to encompass books I’m not even tempted to start. Practical or blinkered, considered or arbitrary, undoubtedly contradictory, in reverse order of annoyingness, these are my 11 reasons I won’t give a novel my time.
I could point out that a difficult childhood is not uncommon but, in my head, I’m already somewhere else. It won’t make me feel any better to correct his misapprehension. I concentrate on making the right non-verbals and wait for my discomfort to pass.
Last year, I set out to read 60 books and read 96. This year, I set a target of 100 books, and read 120. This suggests I’m reading more each year and making more accurate predictions. Of course, it’s not a competition, even against myself, but I do like figures. And, daft as it seems, I do like producing an annual report!
As I rarely, if ever, watch sport, I was surprised how involved I got in the London Olympics. How could I not be moved by such a display of determination and athleticism? But it was the Paralympics I enjoyed the most (despite the slightly inferior TV coverage). Alongside the awe at the athletes’ prowess, were the stories, implicit or explicit, of adversity overcome. On top of that, the games afforded a rare opportunity to look properly at disabled bodies and, with the somewhat complex rating system, to be curious about them without fear of causing offence.
So, you’re midway through composing a blog post when, in a flash of inspiration, you hit on the very book that will nail the point you want to make. You scuttle off to your “library”, zeroing in on the shelf where – however eccentric your filing system¹ – you know it will be waiting for you. Except that it isn’t and, you now remember, it did a flit some time back. You lent it to a trusted friend – his/her exact identity lost in the mists of time – and it’s never been returned.
It’s happened to me a couple of times in recent months. The book in question was one of my favourite novels, namely – I kid you not – Never Let Me Go². I should’ve taken more notice because I’m bereft without it. I want to break into friends’ houses at the dead of night and go rummaging through their possessions till I find it. I’ve asked around of course, but no-one has fessed up.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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